I have a lot of titles in my life. Attorney. Wife. Mom. Sister. Daughter. Yogini. Derby Girl (Yes, it’s true!). But no title has affected me more than Military Spouse. It was a quick decision to get married at the Justice of the Peace in small-town West Texas two days before my spouse’s first deployment and right before my last semester of law school. I wore jeans. He was still in uniform. The only witnesses were the judge and the clerk.
What I thought was crazy turned out to be commonplace in the military. Naïve, I had no idea how much the title Military Spouse would affect my career. Thirteen years later, we now have two kids, and a ninth deployment on the horizon. Let it be clear that I am beyond grateful for the many unique opportunities that military life has afforded us, but that does not mean that it has always been easy.
A recent survey of military spouse attorneys by the Military Spouse JD Network found that one of the biggest hurdles for members is a lack of portable employment and that one out of every two respondents lived apart from their spouse to maintain their legal career. I am one of those people. Frankly, living apart for three years not only affected our marriage, but affected my spouse’s desire to remain in the military. Lack of portable employment becomes a military retention issue which, in turn, becomes a national security issue. Career-driven people often marry other career-driven people.
The military doesn’t let you choose where you live. And, it doesn’t always move you to locations ripe with employment opportunity in our two-income society. For the Air Force, the need of unencumbered air space often translates to remote locations with small populations. We have been assigned to bases in Texas, Mississippi, Arkansas, Germany, New Mexico, Nevada, and Colorado. Licensing challenges aside, frequent moves don’t necessarily align with career growth.
I stumbled upon freelance lawyering. But without this option I likely wouldn’t be practicing today. When I graduated in 2006, remote lawyering and freelance lawyering were virtually unheard of. However, technology and subsequent generations have changed the employment landscape tremendously. Companies such as LAWCLERK are allowing attorneys flexible scheduling with wide-open geographic availability. Others are noticing. We are no longer tied to living where we work, which is wonderful for military spouses, who face much greater un- and under-employment rates than the general population and struggle to maintain a career.
In Germany, my federal job was eliminated due to budget cuts in 2011. That left us with three more years stationed overseas and zero local employment opportunities. I was approached by a friend who was looking to fill a remote, non-legal, independent contractor position with a growing software company. I took it! Since that time, I have expanded my role and now work as their Associate General Counsel, continuing in a remote, independent contractor capacity. Getting this first client was pure luck, but it also opened my eyes to what was out there. I continued building my practice by seeking freelance assignments from firms across the country and was also able to work my schedule around having two children and a spouse with an unpredictable schedule.
Freelance lawyering hasn’t always the obvious choice, but it has been perfect for my life and lifestyle.
Thinking about taking the leap? Here are some pros, cons, and things to consider.
- It saves time. Cut the commute. Earn money instead or do something personally fulfilling during the time you’d otherwise be in the car.
- It saves money. The truth is that not traveling to an office saves a lot on gas, business clothing, and even smaller things like make-up and lunches out. A good tax advisor will help you minimize your liability. A recent personal foray back into office life with a larger salary demonstrated that I actually netted the same, if not more, with a smaller freelance income.
- Flexible scheduling. I often work while my kids are sleeping, allowing myself time during the day to do things like go to the gym, meet a friend for lunch, or attend a school event with my kids, which I couldn’t do in a typical firm environment.
- Income control. If something comes up, I can decline a project. Or, I can take more work if additional income is needed. Also, with opportunities to set your own rates you can both compete and retain a larger portion of that income than you could at a firm.
- Geographic freedom. As a remote, freelance lawyer, I can take my work with me. I don’t need vacation time to go to a wedding out of state, attend a field trip with my kids, or to travel internationally with my family.
But, it’s not all fun and games.
- Adult time. Being an extrovert, I crave adult face time. I solve this by scheduling lunches and getting involved in organizations outside of work.
- Blurring of boundaries. There’s a misconception that because I am at home, that I have lots of free time or don’t work much. I have flexible time, but not free time. Boundaries are important! Let others know you work, deadlines, and a schedule. This often comes into play with out of town visitors, housework, and errands. Set expectations and boundaries early.
- Work is always there. Similar to blurring boundaries, when you work at home it is always there. It can be hard to truly take a vacation or separate work from your daily life.
- Ego. It challenges the ego to see colleagues and peers getting promotions, new titles, and shiny new offices. Remind yourself of the pros and that you are in charge.
- Inconsistent income. It can take awhile to get a consistent income stream and clients who repeatedly turn to you. Market yourself and tell everyone you know what you do.
So, sit on the couch and work in your pajamas every day?! Ok, well, yes…sometimes. But, there’s more to it than that!
- Dedicated office space. You need it. Whether it’s in your home or a local co-working location. The bonus is that this also allows for effective boundary-setting.
- Overhead work. Until you have a consistent client base, there’s a good amount of self-marketing, research, and overhead work. It’s easy to forget that you’re self-employed and need to do all the things necessary to run your own business.
- Childcare. If you’re like me and have small children, you will still need reliable childcare. In fact, childcare outside of the house to minimize distractions is best.
- Business formation. It’s easy to default to a sole proprietorship. But it may serve you to research different business models to determine which will provide you with the best tax benefits and protections.
- Malpractice insurance. This is easily overlooked. Research whether you need it or whether the companies you work with can include you on their coverage.
Whether or not you’ve considered remote, freelance lawyering, it’s worth considering. For someone who needs flexibility, portable employment, and loves to be in control, it’s the perfect choice.
About the author – Michelle Richart is an attorney licensed in Texas and Colorado and was recently accepted to the Air Force Reserve JAG Corps. She serves on the Board of Directors for the Military Spouse JD Network, a bar association for military spouses, and is an advocate for military spouse employment issues. Michelle also volunteers her time with Hiring our Heroes, the Military Spouse Career Coalition, and has worked with the American Immigration Lawyers Association Military Assistance Program and Yoga for Vets. She currently lives with her husband and two children in Colorado Springs where she also teaches yoga and plays roller derby.